The Limits of the Human: Vampires, Werewolves, Serial Killers…

‘If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.’

So says Detective Somerset to his partner in Se7en, a film which tracks the police hunt of a serial killer. Why is it, Professor Richard Dyer asks, that serial killers are so frequently associated with the supernatural – that we desire them to be supernatural figures?

The Italian word for serial killer is ‘il mostro’ – the monster; serial killers are frequently given nonhuman (or, perhaps more fittingly, inhuman) nicknames, from Peter Kürten aka the Vampire of Düsseldorf to Fritz Haarman aka the Werewolf of Hannover. Moving from what is probably the first film focusing on a serial killer, Georges Méliès’s Barbe-bleue, to more recent films such as Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and Antikörper, Dyer highlights the various supernatural associations these murderers have – with Barbe-bleue’s fairy tale connotations (and the threatening disquiet hidden within the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘fairy tale’) to the more overtly malign manifestations of the serial killer’s supernatural qualities in later films. Serial killers are frequently presented as possessing either superhuman or subhuman features. There is the unnerving intelligence of Hannibal (able to tease and manipulate victims and police alike), the superhuman strength of Gabriel Engel, and the animalistic nature of these killers – whether it’s eating human flesh or covering themselves in blood.

As suggested by Detective Somerset, Dyer argues that serial killers are typically associated with the supernatural – as beings whose humanness is called into question – because this ‘lives up to our expectations’. The enormity of such a crime can only be matched by a figure that equally goes beyond its confines, an entity that cannot be contained by a human body and human abilities but must be a supernatural or near-supernatural being. Dyer suggests that the horrific nature of mass murder exceeds our understanding of motives, raising the disturbing thought that the murderer kills simply because he/she enjoys it. So how do we deal with this? We transform or at least align the serial killer with the supernatural being. After all, what is more horrifying? The serial killer as an inhuman supernatural figure, or the serial killer as a nondescript uninteresting human – just like us?

Moving from a broad discussion of serial killers in film, Dyer then focused on the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). The film’s highly stylised set designs enhance the audience’s sense of unease. Do these sets present contemporary German society as damaged? Do they suggest it is not just German society but the entire world that is somehow twisted? That the film’s plot is narrated by a man confined to an insane asylum offers another alternative. Dyer raises the possibility that perhaps the corrupt nightmarish state of serial killing can only be truly comprehended through the lens of insanity or the lens of the supernatural. If we can only imagine the serial killer as a figure divorced from reality, a figure closer to a supernatural being than a human being, then perhaps too great a comprehension of the serial killer means we also become divorced from reality and so deviate from the normative human. The implication seems to be that mass murder pushes not only the serial killer but also the witness to the limits of the human.

Following Dyer’s lecture, the audience were treated to a showing of the film, accompanied by music from Stephen Horne (acclaimed silent film pianist based at the BFI Southbank).

Reviewed by Sophia Wilson, co-convenor of the Being Non/Human discussion group:

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About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London.

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